INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dario Franchitti thought he needed a new challenge after becoming the IndyCar series' big winner in 2007.
Turns out he was wrong.
On Monday, the 37-year-old Scotsman savored the sweetest achievement on his comeback tour — winning his second Indy 500 and giving Chip Ganassi victories at Indy and the Daytona 500 in the same season.
"You know it hasn't really set in yet, it just doesn't right away," Franchitti said. "I couldn't quite believe it last night."
By Monday morning, it should have felt real to anyone at Ganassi headquarters.
After the early wake-up call and sitting through a short, steady rain, Franchitti spent more than 60 minutes posing for photos with his crew, his team owner, his sponsors and his wife, Ashley Judd, in a yellow sun dress.
Only then was the signature moment finally captured: Ganassi tugging on the shoulders of Franchitti and Daytona winner Jamie McMurray as they stood next to their respective trophies on Indy's famous yard of bricks.
The win makes Franchitti one of 17 drivers with two or more Indy titles — both victories finishing under caution. And Sunday's victory sent Franchitti past his racing idol, Scottish star Jim Clark, on Indy's all-time victory list.
But to Franchitti, this quest was never about history or numbers. It was about vindication after an disastrous half-season experiment in NASCAR.
"I always felt at home here, but I just got to a point where I felt I wanted something different," Franchitti said. "During that time, I just realized how much I missed IndyCars. It was kind of like 'Why did I leave?'"
It's a question many continue to ask.
After winning the series title and the series' biggest prize, Indy, in 2007 with Michael Andretti's team, Franchitti followed Tony Stewart and Sam Hornish Jr. into stock cars.
Franchitti started only 10 races for Ganassi's NASCAR team in 2008, never finished higher than 22nd and saw the sponsorship money run out at midseason. That left Franchitti an unemployed, unsatisfied Cup driver who wasn't ready to retire at 35 years old like he always planned.
So Ganassi did the smart thing.
He discounted Franchitti's failures, bringing the Scot back to IndyCars and revamping his Cup team by merging with Teresa Earnhardt's team.
"His NASCAR experience, that was like a semester at sea or something that we did," Ganassi said. "We did it, and we're glad we did it, but we're glad to be back home, too."
Ganassi's two teams have both reaped the rewards.
Last season, Franchitti won his second IndyCar championship and Montoya qualified for his first-ever Chase. And less than four months into this season, McMurray has won at Daytona, Franchitti has won at Indy and McMurray nearly gave Ganassi a Memorial Day weekend sweep in Charlotte. McMurray finished second to Kurt Busch and made a surprise appearance at Indy's photo ceremony.
"It's really a good time to be in Chip's organization," said McMurray, who left Ganassi's Cup team for four seasons before returning this year. "His IndyCar team and Grand Am team have always run really good, and now his Cup team is at that level, too. I can't speak for Dario, but it sure feels good to come back to the team."
Franchitti doesn't even have to utter the words.
After winning five poles and five races in his comeback season last year, he has opened this season four top-fives in the first six races including Sunday's dominant run. If Franchitti showed anything by leading 155 of 200 laps, the most of any driver since Montoya led 167 laps when he won the 2000 Indy with Ganassi, it was that he had not lost any of his skills in IndyCars.
"I wish we had those cars in 2008," Franchitti said, referring to the cars McMurray and Montoya are running now. "Mind you, we might not have been sitting here, which would be a real shame. It all worked out perfectly. I think we said that last year at Long Beach."
But even now, more than a year later, Franchitti knows what he wants.
His flirtation with stock cars is over. He'd rather see his cousin run in Formula One than make that foray himself. And, of course, he realizes there are still plenty of milestones to achieve in IndyCars.
"I am a racing fan, but I am doing exactly what I want to do," he said. "I realized just how much I enjoyed driving IndyCars when I was in NASCAR, and, for me, this is it."